Class 5A blog: Lithonia boys ride defense to success

Lithonia's Josh Daniels goes high for a slam dunk earlier in the 2021-22 season against Stone Mountain.

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Lithonia's Josh Daniels goes high for a slam dunk earlier in the 2021-22 season against Stone Mountain.

Defense has been the trademark of the Lithonia basketball team since the days when the late Eric Mance ran the program. It continued when Wallace Corker came over and remains the priority under second-year coach Sam Marion.

It’s got to be that way in Region 5, where games with rivals St. Pius and Southwest DeKalb – two other defensive stalwarts – can turn on one or two possessions.

Marion understands the importance of defense at Lithonia. He played there for Mance and he was an assistant at Columbia along with Corker when both migrated to the Bulldogs. He considers Corker, now the head coach at Salem, to be like a big brother and embraced the “help defense” philosophy.

“I love the blueprint,” Marion said. “One thing that my mom and dad always taught me was don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken. I tell people, it’s the same blueprint, just different person driving the ship.”

Lithonia went 17-4 in 2020-21 and reached the second round of the state playoffs before losing to Chapel Hill. Most of that team had been with Marion since the ninth grade and he was curious to see how this year’s group would come together.

To be honest, there hasn’t been much of a dropoff. The Bulldogs are 14-6 and are coming off a 44-32 win over Southwest DeKalb. Since a 61-53 loss to Dillard of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Dec. 30, the Bulldogs have not allowed more than 48 points and have limited four of their last five opponents to 40 or fewer points.

The turning point seemed to be the loss to Dillard. Lithonia was leading by 20 and began to make an uncharacteristic number of bad plays and turnovers. The Bulldogs ended up losing by eight and caused the normally soft-spoken Kendrick Merrett, the starting point guard, to call his teammates to task.

“After that game he held everybody accountable,” Marion said. “He would tell me, ‘Coach, he’s not ready. Pull him out.’ Or, let’s do this. It’s almost like he was coaching on the floor. Since then, I’m starting to see everybody hold each other accountable. Now I really see this team coming together as a while. They know how to speak to each other, not yelling or pointing fingers, but saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to step up’ and I definitely love that.”

The team’s top scorer is Chase Champion, a 6-foot-1 senior, the only returning starter on the roster. Champion averages 13.3 points (No. 12 in DeKalb County), and shoots 55% from the floor and %78 percent from the line (No. 2 in DeKalb). He also has a 3.7 grade-point average.

Champion is an outstanding shooter who should be able to play somewhere at the next level. His brother, Frank, plays at North Georgia.

The second-leading scorer is Caleb Taylor, a junior who transferred in from Cedar Grove and is still learning to play the Lithonia way. Taylor is the team’s second-leading scorer, shoots 55.6% from the field and 76% from the line.

Merrett leads the team with 6.4 rebounds – a rare feat for a point guard – along with 3.0 assists, 1.6 steals and shoots 71% from the line.

Other big contributors are Elijah Walker, who is No. 8 in DeKalb with 6.3 rebounds and No. 4 with 1.9 blocks, and Josh Daniels, a good-shooting junior.

Marion also gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Chaun Tinney. Marion handles the offensive approach and Tinney is the defensive coach.

“If it wasn’t for him and working with our defense, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today,” Marion said.

The Bulldogs had perhaps their best effort of the season last week against Southwest DeKalb. The avenged an earlier 69-41 loss by winning 44-32. Lithonia lost twice to St. Pius and could almost sew up third place in Region 5 by beating Decatur on Friday. The region tournament will be played at King High School.